Backpacking brings to life a lot of dead metaphors. When someone drives past you on a dry dirt road, you literally eat their dust, and on day two of a long hike, you really do have to tighten your belt.
But “jackboots?” To me, “jackboot” is just a metonymy for fascists, as in “jackbooted thugs” and “Europe can go from zero to jackboot in no time.” George Orwell derided it as a hackneyed Comintern pejorative that held zero literal meaning for English speakers: “Ask a journalist what a jackboot is, and you will find that he does not know. Yet he goes on talking about jackboots.” I’d bet that Orwell was right and we got the viral “jackbooted Nazi” trope from the Russian language. But curiously, the Soviets themselves
also wore jackboots! In fact, whereas the German army traded in jackboots for laced boots halfway through the war, the Russian army wore them right up to 2008! (In fact, if I’m not mistaken, the usual Russian word for boots, sapogi, specifically refers to jackboots.)
Here in America, actual jackboots are a weird sight, known mostly from black-and-white photos of our dead enemies. Even in China they were rare. I used to deal with a lot of Chinese soldiers, who were organized and equipped along Soviet lines—like the Finns, the PLA would study Soviet designs and then improve them—but instead of sapogi they wore green canvas sneakers. It was only the ceremonial detail (礼兵) who raised the flag in Tiananmen Square each morning who would goose-step across Chang’an Boulevard in actual huge gleaming jackboots.
I must be a true ‘Murican, because I am turned off by jackboots, both the word and the real thing. For me, they call to mind all the adjectives that I associate with Mussolini: “preening,” “cocksure,” “buffoonish,” “swaggering,” “ridiculous,” “vainglorious,” and so on.
So I was surprised to find that in 2018 jackboots are still being chosen for daily wear by actual, nice, non-evil people! Exhibit A is Lars Grebnev, a Danish expatriate who creates the “Survival Russia” YouTube channel from the homestead he shares with his Russian wife and daughter in BFE, Siberia. (Hmm, I guess it shouldn’t be BFE but “БФЗ.”) A woodsman and hunter, Lars prefers jackboots to lace-ups for general wear because the jackboots keep moisture out, dry quickly when wet, and keep a healthy circulation of blood and air in and around the foot.
I had to keep reminding myself that a considered preference for jackboots is not necessarily the same as choosing despotism over freedom. “Besides,” I assured myself, “Grebnev can’t be an evil blood-stained fascist hyena. He’s Danish, and since Viking times no Dane has visited atrocities on other countries. Unless you count the films of Lars von Trier.”
So for the sake of Science, I acquired a pair of East German jackboots from—literally—a dust-covered shelf in a dark corner of a cavernous surplus store. They were so unloved that I had to convince the store owner to charge me $20 for them. “Perhaps,” I thought, “as a true American she’s ashamed even to have them in her store and just wants them gone.”
And then (deep breath) I wore the jackboots. Yes, outside of my house. In daylight. On a long hike. Granted, I did roll my pant legs down over the distinctively mitteleuropäischen boot tops so that people wouldn’t look at me and think, “Wow, I bet that guy kills for sport.” And there is NFW I am taking a picture of myself in tall jackboots and putting it on the internet. I probably wouldn’t be crucified unless I also wore balloon-like cavalry trousers and carried a swagger stick. But these days you can’t be too careful. People get condemned as Nazis for less. Honestly, sometimes I wonder whether you people adequately appreciate the things I do for you.
When you change into a completely different kind of clothing, you change your posture and movement too. Not just because you are conscious of a different social role but because of how the clothes physically touch, cue, constrain, or free you. If you’re like me, if you wear a kilt for a few hours, you walk and stand wider just because you can. Your thighs get to do whatever they want for once and you can give more room to … whatever needs room.
The jackboots seem to prompt you to lock your knees when standing, because they push gently backward on your shins and coax you to put more weight on your heels. You tuck your pelvis under too—most Americans stand with our pelvises tilted forward—and then when I walk in the jackboots, I swing my feet more from the knees.
In the field, the jackboots were much more comfortable than I thought. I am pretty certain that the Russian army chose jackboots not to please the soldiers but because they made the supply officers’ job easier. One advantage to the jackboots was that correct sizes are not so important (more on this later), so your soldiers could get boots that were too big and still make do. Also, if I understand correctly, jackboots are easier to manufacture than ankle boots. Yes, they use up more leather, which is why the Germans abandoned them mid-war, but in some cases the Soviets had plenty of raw materials and labor but not enough of the specialized tooling and production experience needed for fancier items.
A classic example was the early AK-47. As originally designed, it was supposed to use light, cheap metal stampings, an emerging technology used to great effect by German engineers when they ran low on raw materials. But the Soviets found they suffered a different kind of scarcity than the Germans: their enemies had run short of steel and factory workers but they still had world-class production engineering. In contrast, the Soviets had enough steel and manufacturing capacity, but they didn’t have engineers who were experienced in the new field of metal stamping. So they purposely took a technological step backward and abandoned stampings for AK-47s, instead going back to the old-fashioned technique of carving the guns out of blocks of metal. (They also enslaved the German engineers and made them fix the metal-stamping problems. How’s that for thinking outside the box?) They chose something clunkier that used more material because that was the thing they could mass-produce using the skills they were good at. I suspect that jackboots were like that too: no eyelets or grommets or hooks, no tongue, not so much precise fitting, just a basic pattern that the Russian workforce was already good at making.
As promised, my jackboots kept my feet dry. I was pleased that for once I could clomp boldly through the stream instead of picking my way across stepping stones with a backpack and a clumsy jerry can–and maybe falling in anyway. And the jackboots were amazingly light, lighter than any boots I own, being made from some kind of imitation leather (possibly kirza).
What I worried about was footing. As noted, jackboots by themselves do not fit you very closely. Saying nothing of the ankle, which has no laces, the boots’ “lasts” (the foot-shaped part) can’t tighten around your feet. Instead they are like little boxes and your feet bang around inside fairly loosely. Even wearing two pairs of woolen socks, my feet did not feel snug enough.
That was the whole problem. These boots are not made with socks in mind. Instead you’re assumed to be wearing footwraps (portyanki). So I did it, friends! As promised, I cut up an old flannel bedsheet into strips of 40 x 90cm (16 x 36”) and learned how to wrap my feet the Russian way. (One more item off the bucket list!)
Let me tell you, comrades, like so much of life, there is a right way to wrap your feet and there are also lots of wrong ways. I know this because I tried all of them. Finally I got it right (thanks, Lars!), and what resulted looks like a foot that’s mummified in soft, poofy cotton cloth. Tactilely, it felt really luxurious and cozy, like a thick, sturdy sheaf of cotton candy from my calf down to my toes. And miraculously, when I slid my mummified foot deep into the boot, I got a nice, snug fit. Instead of my feet banging around the inside of loose leather cases, they were like a pair of earrings cushioned by cotton inside a gift box. Whereas laced boots tighten the boot down around the foot, the portyanki bulk the foot out to fill up the boot.
This seems to be why jackboots are forgiving of imprecise sizing. If you have a pair of boots that gives you a lot of toe room, you can tweak your wrappings slightly to fill in the empty space. Problem solved! The same thing happens at the ankle. The portyanki are super-long—a full yard!—and most of that cloth ends up wrapped around your ankle and calf. It acts as “internal boot laces,” if you will, and gives you a firm fit. When you walk, your heels get to rise and fall a little but you are held gently but firmly at your toes, instep, ankle, and calf.
On my walk, the only problem occurred when I walked down a long, steep, rough slope under heavy load. My toes were superbly cushioned, whereas hiking boots would grind them if the boots didn’t have generous toe room and the right tension in the laces. But after a time, the downward angle was slowly bunching up the footwraps in the boots’ toes, and after half a mile of that I needed to rewrap my feet so that I blister them against the wrinkles forming underneath them. I don’t yet know whether this is an inherent problem or my fault as a neophyte foot-wrapper.
In any case, at that point I had the opportunity to try out one of the virtues of portyanki that Lars and others praise the most: they make it easy to keep your feet dry of sweat because they are like several pairs of spare socks in one. Your sweaty foot is only in contact with one corner of the footwrap at a time, and the opposite end is wound around your calf or even poking out the top of your boot, where it is gradually drying. So if your foot would benefit from some dry “socks,” you just turn the portyanki around and wrap from the other side. Later you can dunk them in water, wring them out, and hang them up, and the thin cloth will air-dry in no time. I tried this out at the Pool of Heaven and it worked just as advertised.